Is there a Realistic Alternative to Large Garden Communities?

Comments on my post often state that there is a more sustainable alternative to large scale new settlements.  Lets looks at them:

  1.  Garden Villages – promoted for example by Cause as an alternative to North Essex Garden Communities.    Two problems here.  the first is the number needed.  Take the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Arc for example.  Around 1.25 million to 2050.  (its larger than the 1 million quoted at the 2017 budget as the definition now includes North Northants and South Bucks.)  If we take a garden village as being one primary school two form entry then this equates to around 2,080 dwellings at national average household size and age pyramid.  In the arc this equates to 601 garden villages, total sprawl.  Garden Villages are being promoted everywhere and anywhere by developers but are typically just unsustainable estates in the middle of nowhere, just using the ‘garden’ moniker (as the recent garden Communities prospectus notes..  The term ‘garden village’ never passed Ebeneezer Howards’s lips.  The second related problem is wasted potential of accessible sites.  Only a few sites will have or have the potential to have good transit access, and transit will only be viable if you have a minimum density and critical mass.  The new NPPF on integrating land use and transport and ensuring that new development is accessible to public transport (para 103) all but rules out most garden villages, as the first landmark recovered appeal on this issue has highlighted. Which is not to state they never have a role.  They might for example be on a bus route to somewhere else, and well utilise a brownfield site, and/or on be a short distance away from urban areas e.g. Bourn Airfield and Dunsfold Airfield).
  2. Keep Everything in Large Cities This approach is promoted by the so-called Campaign for Smart Growth UK, which in effect is a campaign against all growth outside major cities.  There approach is as follows.

A single railway station with lines going only in two directions doesn’t meet the employment needs of today’s families whose journeys to work will take them to all points of the compass. Research confirms this.
Getting multi-breadwinner families out of their cars involves them living in big conurbations with dense networks of rail-based transit. There really is no workable alternative.

The problem is in England this really only applies to Inner London and a few places in Outer London opened up by the Overground network, even Birmingham and Manchester for example only really have radial networks with two directions of travel being the norm from rail and transit points.  Of that leaves only inner London and a few well connected nodes like Croydon Town Centre in Outer London this means an impossible volume of housebreaking in these areas.  London itself is struggling to meet the targets of the new London Plan.  Projected forward to 2052 it means 10,400 40 storey tower blocks or around 8 Hing Kong’s Worth, at ‘Create Streets’ type densities, it would mean redeveloping an area greater than 18 Park Royals which means three boroughs worth of demolition.   If London took 80% of growth, the implication of the Smart Growth UK standard it would be eight times more, around 10 million dwellings, which would require the near tripling of dwellings in London and redevelopment of 30 of the 33 boroughs as 4-6 storey mansion blocks.  This is a Unicorn strategy, it ain’t going to happen.  Rather than Smart growth by setting an impossible to meet and implement strategy that doesn’t meet growth needs where they originate, forcing mass migration and mass displacement from mass demolition it is a policy only a British Pol Pot could implement.  So in reality it is a no growth not a smart growth approach.
What about the charge though that railway towns in England are unsustainable as only a minority commute by train as RTPI research shows?   True but confined to England and its very anti public transport walking and cycling planning.  Compare to the continent say where car use is made harder and walking, cycling and access to public transport (running at much greater frequencies) we find often find the modal share by car half that of comparative English towns.  Take Houten for example in the Netherlands, a classic Garden town with one line in and out which has a 26% modal share by car, less than half of comparable town in the UK, and where it is made difficult to drive to through and easier to penetrate by walking and cycling.  Which is why it isn’t just about location but also about integrated masterplanning for truly smart growth around transit orientated development hubs.  In addition many towsn= in the UK, and many locations where train lines cross and are proposed to cross (like Calvert for example) offer the true potential for all directions commuting. In conclusion the bias of Smart Growth UK against large Scale Garden Communities is not supported by evidence from international best masterplanning and regional planning practice.  Sadly they are not serious about alternatives and have repeatedly failed challenges to say where development should go instead in many counties. Sadly I have to conclude they are just a Nimby front that fails to offer sustainable alternatives to sprawl.

3 .Urban Extension – This often is a realistic alternative.  The only issue is is it enough by itself give the scale of growth needed given the years of weak building.  Nick Falk’s ‘snowflake’ argument is that urban expansion is cheaper as it uses existing infrastructure.  But with many towns needing to increase in size by 50% or more to 2050, and more when you take into account London Overspill, then the issue that this is only true to a point becomes clear.  What town has 50% spare infrastructure.  Sewage treatment works will be overloaded, trains stations will be overloaded, all school are mostly likely already full.  In many cases it will be cheaper to build anew and capture the land value uplift.  There is also the problem that unlike continental towns most English Towns undertook a phase of suburban density housing that blocks off there centres from easy walking and cycling distance.  Ironically it is those towns that had a shortfall in late victorian and early 20th Century expansion (like Oxford and Cambridge) that have the best opportunities for urban extension.  Elsewhere you will find with towns like Luton or Leicester for example that urban extensions can be 10 miles from the  city centre, and so have to be largely self contained with their own rail connections to be sustainable at all, in which cases the distraction between freestanding garden communities and urban extensions is somewhat academic.

In conclusion no. It is largely a matter of scale.  We need to build such a large amount of housing to catch up with years of slow building that only large garden communities offer realistic potential to meet it.  other alternatives are too dispersed to be sustainable or require an unrealistic assembly of the  most expensive land in the UK with nowhere for the  displaced to go (in England we cant even decant one tower block like Grenfell let alone 30 Boroughs worth).  Which is not to state it easy, a dramatic shift in how we master plan these communities integrated with how we plan for transport to and between them is needed.